Limor Livnat, Are You a Part of a Chelm Coalition?

Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat (Likud) was one of the main opponents in the cabinet to moving the new emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center. She was one of six Likud ministers to vote against Prime Minister Netanyahu's position.

Limor Livnat, in view of the cabinet discussion and decision and the freezing of that decision, do you feel like you're a member of a Chelm government?

Not a Chelm government, but the decision that was made on Sunday was a mistaken decision. It's still a long way from calling the Israeli government such names.

You proposed to the prime minister that he postpone the discussion for a week, until the expert opinion of the head of the Antiquities Authority was received about the identity of the graves. Why did he reject your suggestion?

At first, the prime minister said he accepted the proposal to postpone it by a week, but later in the meeting it turned out that (Deputy Health Minister) Litzman wouldn't accept this proposal, and a dynamic developed in which Litzman threatened to resign. This is not an easy thing for any prime minister. You have to remember that in the previous government, in exactly the same situation, Ehud Olmert surrendered to pressure from the Haredim and, as a result, the director-general of his bureau, Ra'anan Dinur, decided to move the location of the emergency room at Barzilai to the parking lot. It's no simple thing to be prime minister when there are pressures like this from coalition partners.

Olmert's been out of power for a year, and Bibi promised to be better. Do you believe that Litzman would have made good on his threat and resigned if the proposal was rejected?

I don't know. I must say, to the prime minister's credit, he did not exert any pressure. He didn't speak with me or with the other Likud ministers. And, let me remind you, six Likud ministers voted against the decision. The prime minister could have talked to me and asked me to withdraw my opposition - and that didn't happen. That's to his credit, despite Litzman's threat. It doesn't change the fact that the decision was wrong then and is still wrong now. I expect that if the proposal is brought to the cabinet again, it will not pass. After the public uproar that ensued, there won't be a majority for this decision, and it's a shame that some ministers didn't see this before.

What do you say to your Likud colleagues who avoided voting?

Everyone needs to make his own personal reckoning. I'm not giving out grades.

Do you think they stayed out of it so as not to tangle with the ultra-Orthodox?

I don't know. But when it is brought to a vote again, the result will be different. That's my prediction. I gave a directive yesterday morning to Shuka Dorfman, director of the Antiquities Authority, which is subject to my ministry, to speak with Rabbi [David] Schmidl, who is the head of the Atra Kadisha organization. Tomorrow there will be a tour of the site, together with Eyal Gabai, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, and I expect that in the coming days, there will be developments and solutions will be found.

Are you hinting there's already an arrangement in the works that will prevent the emergency room from being moved?

I can't speak on behalf of the Atra Kadisha. But there is dialogue with them, certainly, and that's already a correct and positive step.

Don't you find it infuriating that an anti-Zionist organization like the Atra Kadisha should determine the fates of hundreds of thousands of residents of the south?

I have great respect for the same Jewish values and for those who take care to safeguard Jewish graves, and not just Jewish graves, but graves in general, and the dignity of those to whom the graves are important. Every grave must be respected, but an attempt must also be made to find solutions and they, the Atra Kadisha people, have shown flexibility in dozens of cases in the past. Why are they being so rigid this time? I can't answer that.

This is the problem, that Israeli governments are dependent on the Haredim. Sharon was the only one who left them out of his government.

There's a problem with a political map like ours. Instead of being composed of two large parties, as in most countries in the world and as was the case here in the Seventies and Eighties, today we have a lot of medium-size and small parties, and forming a coalition is an extremely complicated and nearly impossible proposition. Sharon was able to form a government without the Haredim when the Likud had 40 Knesset seats. That's been unusual for the last few years.

Netanyahu could have left them out and brought in Kadima but he preferred to go with the "natural partners."

The Likud's natural alliance has always been with the right and the religious. This doesn't mean that we want to be dependent on the Haredim on every single matter. We certainly don't want to be dependent on Kadima in diplomatic matters. Tzipi Livni just now refused to sign Otniel Schneller's petition regarding the unity of Jerusalem, and we know what Olmert offered Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] concerning Jerusalem. Don't forget that Netanyahu made very generous offers to Tzipi Livni but she insisted on a rotation [as prime minister]. He couldn't give her that and, in the end, you can't bring someone into the government if they don't want to join.

What about the prime minister's conduct? We've seen repeated capitulations on many issues, and now here, too.

This is not a capitulation but a decision that conforms precisely to the cabinet decision on Sunday, i.e., that there is a month during which to examine whether there are new conditions. I don't see this as capitulation. The prime minister sees and hears what people are saying. He acted immediately and appointed the director-general of his bureau to head a committee that will search for solutions. I know it's standard practice to pounce on the prime minister for every little thing. But that's not the case here.

Did you anticipate the intensity of the public criticism?

I did not expect the intensity of the criticism. I don't think anyone could have anticipated the intensity of the criticism, which is really wall-to-wall, and really extraordinarily fierce. I myself have some very substantial and vehement criticism of this decision. The outcry that arose because of it is totally justified.

If Netanyahu can't withstand the pressure of the newspaper headlines, how will he be able to stand up to President Obama's pressure to make diplomatic concessions?

Netanyahu is standing up to the pressure from the administration in the right way. He said clear things about Jerusalem both in his speech before AIPAC and in the Knesset here in Israel. He said clear and firm and important things. There is a tricky balance of powers between us and the United States and a delicate balance of interests. In regard to Jerusalem, the prime minister is standing firm and handling it extremely well.